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Dec 10

The Explainer: The power of public opinion

That was a scene from the film, “Marie Antoinette” where the beginning of the end of the Bourbon dynasty began with citizens who dared to march on the royal palace of Versailles. History is replete with the powerful trembling before the force of public opinion.

Over the past week, the power of public opinion has made itself felt yet again. Should leaders bow to it, or buck it? That’s our task for tonight.

 

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

The Voice of the People is the Voice of God. That’s an article of faith in democratic discourse.

But General William Tecumseh Sherman had a famously low opinion of public opinion. “Vox Populi? Vox Humbug!” He said.

One man’s People Power can be another man’s Mob Rule.

It gets more complicated when The People are tasked with electing Representatives and those representatives are expected to speak for The People.

As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, ours is a representative democracy with plebescitory characteristics.

That is, our elected representatives are usually content to speak for us, but in a pickle, our representatives like to go directly to the people.

The past week’s given us a graphic demonstration of how the interplay can be complicated.

In its nocturnal sessions, the House of Representatives exercised political will and the weight of an iron-clad majority –and was booed:

Rep. Cagas told the people off-

RC Constantino told the Speaker and friends off-

And he got told off by the congressman who likes to tell everybody off, Rep.

And Star columnist Carmen Pedrosa told Constantino off, too:

While an amateur firefighter confused Constantino’s volcanic temper with an actual fire and moistened RC’s face with the contents of a glass.

Still, if the booing from the gallery in response to the barking of our representatives.

It’s better than the 1920s when a fellow congressman kicked Speaker Manuel Roxas in the shins during a heated session, and when sessions would be interrupted by congressmen brandishing their pistols-

As this editorial cartoon from the Philippines Free Press pointed out, allowed to get out of hand, Filipinos might have had to endure more than a 1920s version of Pedrosa screaming “respect your representatives!” Public opinion forced pistol-packing representatives to back off.

There are certain things public opinion’s been consistent with, over generations, as these Free Press editorial cartoons show.

The public has always been aware that the pursuit of public office can be confused with a quest for a pot of gold.

The public, too, has been critical of leaders who think that public service is merely about providing pork barrel funds.

And the public’s always opposed the simple-minded theory that politics is just a numbers game.

And it’s never been keen on the canine devotion of what I like to call Palace Pekingese. Whether in Congress or a Constitutional Convention.

Rep. Ronnie Zamora reminded Rep. Villafuerte that their legislative debut had been in the unicameral parliament known as the Batasan Pambansa. He was trying to warn his friend that what the country was seeing on late night television would lead to reliving our painful experience with that unicameral parliament.

Using the power of numbers, invoking its rules, the Batasan Pambansa proclaimed Marcos the winner after the fraudulent 1986 Snap Elections.

This vivid Free Press editorial cartoon said with one drawing what millions would soon after say in  the streets-

(marcos wins)

Parliament’s proclamation was straight from the … well, rear. The country, failed by its representatives, threw them out.

When we return, how public opinion became a potent political force.

 

II.

 

That was from The Return of the King, where the signal fires of Gondor are lit. Public opinion is like signal fires leaping from mountain-top to mountain-top in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the Philippine context the power of opinion’s been described as the Bamboo telegraph.

If you’ve noticed most of the cartoons we’ve used for this episode date to the 20s and 30s. There’s a reason. Explainee, I’d like you to listen to Jaime Fabregas reading a speech from 1922-

 

Those were Manuel L. Quezon’s words from the same speech in which he said my loyalty to my party ends where my loyalty to my country begins. The idea that public opinion should intrude and even affect, politicians even between elections dates to that year.

The involvement of students in politics became part of the manifestation of this newer politics of opinion.

The University of the Philippines was even tagged the University of Politics, as this editorial cartoon shows, as party positions competed for public support. Media power, proven by Rizal’s generation of propagandists, underscored by Bonifacio’s setting up a newspaper for the Katipunan and by the First Republic printing its own official newspaper, had endured in the American era. But to the power of the press was added the power of public discourse –which the politicians couldn’t always control.

A decade later, public opinion, and with it, the public demonstration, had become a firm feature of our political life.

In 1933, US Senator Harry B. Hawes visited the Philippines to see for himself if Filipinos really wanted independence. He traveled from Baguio to Dansalan, and a newsreel was made of his visit.

He visited Lanao, where Muslims demonstrated in favor of independence;

A sentiment emphasized by the Sultan of Sulu personally going to Manila to tell Hawes of  his support for independence;

He visited Kawit, where veterans of the Revolution paraded for independence and General Aguinaldo made a speech;

There was a rally in Malolos;

In Tayabas;

In Palawan, too, where idealistic children pleaded that one day they could be congressmen, too.

And in Cebu.

But the biggest rally was in Manila where it was claimed 150,000 people rallied. It remained the record-breaking rally held in the metropolis until People Power in 1986. In fact, the rally in front of the Legislative Building was the first awakening of peaceful People Power.

From that early start in 1933, we could see what is all so familiar now: a mix of students, preachers and priests, professors and politicians, intervening in public places like plazas and outside Congress, to prove a political point.

If you look closely at the newsreel, there’s a sign held up by Protestant Churches: faith and politics have always mixed, not just for religious minorities but also the minority. Speaking in 1957, Senator Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo explained why, in a speech read recorded by Jaime del Mundo.

 

The children of those who trooped to P. Burgos drive in 1933 would march there again during the First Quarter Storm; their grandchildren were at Luneta and Edsa in 1986, motivated by what critics today call moralism but which then as now, has always simply been patriotism.

Joaquin “Chino” Roces, looking back at People Power in 1988, said it best. Here’s his remarks as recorded by Miguel Faustmann.

For the reasons Roces gave, the great-grandchildren of the 1933 rallyists were at the Edsa Shrine in 2001; and it seems their great great-great grandchildren will join in at the Luneta on December 17. Unless Pagcor reserves the Quirino grandstand again.

But if you had any doubt of how important public opinion is, Explainee, would you like to read this portion from our Constitution?

Section 3. The Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of all its Members, call a constitutional convention, or by a majority vote of all its Members, submit to the electorate the question of calling such a convention.

 

It’s there in our Constitution, in plain language. Even something as democratic as a constitutional convention can be tempered by first subjecting it to public opinion.

When we return, we’ll ask our guest’s opinions on public opinion and political leadership.

 

My view

 

Santayana famously said, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. But what if you’re like representatives Villafuerte and Lagman, who have played their part in history? On opposite sides in the pre-Edsa fence, they have become birds of a feather flocking under the wing of the Speaker. And sharing in the disgust that’s energized the citizenry from North to South.

The British historian AJP Taylor remarked of Napoleon III that “like most of those who study history, he learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.” In trying to return to the discredited Batasan Pambansa, its veterans in today’s House of Representatives mastered the rules but misjudged the public capacity to be outraged.

A wiser Congress in 1969, instead of imposing its will on the public, asked permission first. Asked in a plebiscite whether the people preferred a Constituent Assembly or a Convention, the people said they preferred a convention.

But until now, the people haven’t been asked anything. Remember that cartoon from the 20s with congressmen waving their guns around? What’s the difference between making a choice at gunpoint and being told we have a choice after all the shenanigans in the early morning hours at the House?

Anything railroaded isn’t a choice, it’s an imposition.

 

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